Friday, June 15, 2007

Why HBO Needs Preacher

While I thoroughly enjoyed the first episode of John From Cincinnati, I think it’s also pretty clear that this show isn’t going to become HBO’s next big smash. The channel has a reputation as the home of quality shows, and I think it consistently delivers stuff that you just could not see on a broadcast network. Regardless of the premise, I’m willing to give any HBO show a chance because I’ve had such good experiences with them in the past. But, it’s no secret that they’re at something of a crossroads following the cancellation of The Sopranos. But, there is one show they have in development that could provide everything they’d need for another breakthrough hit, and that is Preacher.

When I first heard that HBO was developing a Preacher series, I was happy, but a bit confused as well. It’s one of those dream projects I’d thrown around in my head, but never actually expected to see come to fruition. A few days ago, I saw a video interview with Garth Ennis where he said the project was moving forward, it just needed HBO’s approval to go to pilot. Hearing that, I realized that Preacher is exactly the show that HBO needs to make, and they’d be fools not to put this show into action. They wouldn’t be doing it for the comics community, they’d be doing it for themselves.

The Sopranos was a huge hit for a number of reasons, but what separated it from virtually every other HBO series was that it’s simultaneously elitist and fully accessible. Thinking of the show’s audience, the hyper intelligent urban elite can co-exist with working class guys who idolize Tony and his crew. This was one of the central issues Chase had to deal with, that a section of his audience pretty much wanted to be Tony, while he thought of the audience as Doctor Melfi and her social circle. Chase may have had issues with the whack ‘em all segment of the viewing public, but it’s precisely that group of people that made the show a hit far beyond the elite that is HBO’s normal target audience. And don’t think they’re not all about the elite, they proudly boast the tagline “It’s not TV, It’s HBO.”

A lot of what made The Sopranos a success was its controversial elements. The violence had people talking, and ultimately, that’s what makes a show a success. HBO’s business model pretty much relies on a show becoming watercooler fodder. Networks offer people shows for free and still struggle to get viewers. HBO doesn’t get the sampling that networks have, their shows have to be must see. The Sopranos was a cultural phenomenon, I didn’t even like to go on the internet until I’d seen the latest episode that aired, it was what people talked about, and consequently, helped to build the HBO brand.

While I like most of the shows they have, I think HBO made a bunch of mistakes in its recent programming choices. A show like Big Love is good, but isn’t as far beyond network TV as something like The Sopranos or Six Feet Under. The polygamy stuff attracted some initial press, but it’s not the kind of show where you’re going to be aghast upon hearing what happened on the latest Big Love. Now, a show doesn’t need to be that kind of show to work. Six Feet Under usually wasn’t, but SFU was also just so good that it became must see by virtue of our attachment to the characters.

The thing that a lot of recent HBO shows are lacking is that character attachment. Carnivale, Rome and Big Love just don’t allow for the same kind of engagement as a Six Feet Under or The Sopranos. I think a big part of this is the fact that they’re set in worlds that aren’t familiar to us. The Sopranos had elements of this, but also had ordinary suburbia to anchor the mob stories. On TV, it’s harder to pull off a long term story in a world that isn’t our own. TV is all about engagement with the characters, so unless it’s a massive singular narrative like Babylon 5, it’s tough to engage with the goings on. I respect them for making shows that are so ambitious and different, but it also makes it tough to become hooked on them. The best TV shows are addictive, you don’t want to respect a show, you want to need a show, and I never really needed to see the next Carnivale or Big Love.

The Sopranos and Six Feet Under are both very sophisticated character dramas, a genre that TV can do better than any other. They both have overarching narrative arcs, but also enjoyable in each moment along the way. I fear that shows like John From Cincinnati and Carnivale fail because they rely too much on mystery instead of character substance. I like mysteries, but a lot of viewers don’t have the patience for anything but certain fact. And, mystery should exist as the hook to get us into the characters’ world, not the substance of the entire show.

So, what HBO needs is a show that would be controversial, provoke discussion, and be different from network TV, but at the same time provide us with compelling character arcs in a relatable setting. Preacher would do all this, be the exact kind of show that they need right now. Reading Preacher, I was hooked by the over the top violence and grotesquerie, but what kept me coming back was the story of Jesse and Tulip, as well as the development of their relationship with Cassidy. The series has a strong character hook that will make viewers need to see the next episode once they get started. There are very few works that are just as compulsively readable as Preacher. I remember sitting down and reading entire trades in one sitting, it hits that perfect addictive place. When I started watching Buffy, the closest thing I could compare it to was reading Preacher.

The other thing Preacher has is a lot of controversial material. There’s going to be a lot of articles asking whether this show goes too far, in both the level of its violence and its not exactly reverential take on religion. There’s going to protests, there’s going to be debate, and all that is good for ratings. People will know this show is debuting and that’s half the battle. Plus, you’ve got the entire comic series fanbase who will be likely to tune in and give the show heavy internet support. Plus, the violence and sex would be something a network show couldn’t do.

The one potential issue I see with the show is its appeal to both women and the liberal elite audience that makes up a lot of the channel’s audience. The beauty of The Sopranos was that it offered really strong female stories, and the female hook to capture the female audience. Tulip is a strong female protagonist, and her relationship with Jesse would surely inspire some fanfic, but the stereotypical female viewer would likely be put off by both the ridiculous amount of violence and the macho posturing in the series. That essentially conservative attitude would also be troubling for much of the audience. But, I think it’s better to push people than just give them something that gets no reaction.

So, I think HBO needs to get Preacher in production stat. It’s the kind of show that will have people talking, and the built in comic book appeal will give it an immediate boost. If this show is a huge success, it could lead to more Vertigo based TV shows. I’d love to see a Sandman series, and in particular, an Invisibles series, preferably with me as the show runner on that one. Hopefully Alan Ball’s True Blood won’t preclude HBO from greenlighting another show with vampire content.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

All Star Superman #5: 'The Gospel According to Lex Luthor'

Morrison continues his journey through the Superman mythos with a stop at Lex Luthor, who lectures Clark Kent on the nature of Superman. This issue is notable for not featuring Superman at all, which turns him into more of an idea than an individual. Much of the series’ thematic focus has been on exploring that concept, Superman as an icon, but by focusing things through Lex’s point of view, we get an entirely different notion of the man of steel.

One of the most fun things about this issue is watching Clark Kent struggle to solve problems without revealing he’s Superman. As I’ve said before, Morrison and Quitely have created such a brilliant dichotomy between Superman and the front he puts on as Clark Kent that you can legitimately believe that Luthor wouldn’t know that the man standing right in front of him is actually Superman. A lot of it is Quitely’s art, which gives Clark this awkward slump, a big contrast to Superman’s shoulder back, chest out pride.

In a lot of circles, the Kill Bill Volume II speech about how Superman is the real person and Clark Kent is the disguise has become taken as fact, and you could certainly see things that way in the series. Watching Clark go about, you can feel he’s uncomfortable in his own skin, but as Superman, he’s totally in control. But, I think it’s more than simply him really being Superman and playing this role of the goofy human. I think Morrison’s understanding of the character is informed by the idea that both sides of the personality are equally valid. He is the last son of Krypton, sent to save Earth, but he’s also a Kansas farmboy who finds himself out of place in the big city.

Now, one could argue that that lack of confidence is part of the persona, but I think it reveals the underlying uncertainty that Clark/Superman has about his place in the world. As Superman, he’s in his element, saving people and not having to worry about individual interaction. But, in Clark, we can see all his insecurities made manifest. The iconic image of the first cover shows Superman calmly observing the world from above, when he’s down in the mess, things aren’t so serene.

Luthor raises the question of what the world would be like without Superman. As a reader in a world without Superman, we have to think of our own world, one where people are pretty much content to accept that this is all there is. We’ve already seen how Superman has inspired people like Leo Quintum to invent new things and try to bring all humanity to the level of Superman. For him, Superman is a model to aspire to.

In Luthor, we see the reverse of that, what would happen if a man could work all his life to be his best, both physically and mentally, but still be unable to match up to Superman. That would be incredibly frustrating, and this issue does a good job of conveying that frustration. There’s some irony in Luthor telling Clark that he could never have Lois as long as Superman’s around, but it also hits home in some ways. This is coming after Lois was completely unable to believe that Superman was also Clark. She doesn’t want to acknowledge that the all powerful model human could have the weakness of a Clark Kent in him. He can’t even compete with himself, so how are others expected to match him?

Luthor talks about turning the prison into an alternative society, one where Superman is absent. The notion of building a society in miniature is something Morrison has done a lot, in the Petri dish world and Libertania in The Filth, as well as the robot dome in Manhattan Guardian #2. It’s not really developed here, but I’m assuming we’ll return to the prison at some point later in the series, and see how Luthor’s plans pay off. This issue, more than any of the previous ones, feels like it’s setting up elements in a larger arc. There’s a payoff on the threat, but I really hope we return to what Luthor is working on down the line.

Using The Parasite as a foe here is great because it puts Clark in legitimate danger. How can he stop The Parasite without revealing himself as Superman. We again see Clark use his goofiness as a weapon, as well as Luthor’s calculating skill as a warrior.

I’m not sure if the baboon in the Superman suit has a larger significance, or is just a goofy, funny image. There could be some connection to evolution, the idea that this baboon is to humanity what humanity is to Superman. It also works as a way of Luthor showing how control he is, even in prison, he can do anything he wants.

Luthor’s ending speech is fantastic, largely because of the drawn on eyebrow. This such a goofy, funny touch, and yet it also gives him some menace in that final panel. I don’t think it’s coincidental that the eyebrow gives him the look of Quimper. It’s interesting to see Clark first try to reach out to Luthor, then get angry when he refuses. This is the human part of Superman, the bafflement at dealing with a foe who just might be one step ahead of him. And, down here, Clark is unable to reveal his real power to Luthor. Luthor tells Clark that Superman is dying, a message to bring to the world. Will Clark reveal this?

Luthor says if Superman wasn’t around, he’d be ruling the planet. It’s tough to be second best, that seems to be Luthor’s primary motivation in battling Superman. He can’t handle the competition. It’s a distinctly human motivation, this inability to accept that someone better than you is out there.

Luthor hands Clark off to his apprentice, who one day hopes to rule the world. It’s great that she’s dressed as a dominatrix, rowing through a river of what’s apparently lava in a cave to bring Luthor stuff. What can I say, it works for me.

So, this issue really sets up the stakes for the rest of the series. Luthor may be one step ahead of Superman, and as Clark Kent, he’s powerless to do anything about it. Of course, now he knows more about Luthor, and can likely use this knowledge to eventually defeat him. But, for now, the future looks uncertain.

I still miss Lois, but this issue was great. Quitely and Morrison create such a demanding, visual comic. It’s great to read a work that really uses the medium of comics, this isn’t experimental in the way that an Alan Moore work is, but it’s as profound a redefinition of what the medium can do. I feel like Morrison and Quitely just raise the bar for what a comic can be, and I’m glad to follow along as they do this.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

All Star Superman #4: 'The Superman/Jimmy Olsen War"

“The Superman/Jimmy Olsen War” is the weakest issue of the series yet, but it’s still fun and stylish in the way that only Morrison and Quitely can deliver. What’s hooked me on the series is the relationship between Superman and Lois, so it’s a bit disappointing to leave them for an issue to focus on Jimmy. But, getting past that, there’s plenty of good stuff here.

One of the notable things about this issue, and the series in general, is how well Morrison uses the twenty-two page comic format. Most writers today structure things in six part arcs that are “written for the trade.” Now, I read almost all my books in trade and I have to say it’s perhaps even less satisfying to wait six months to read a story then get less than the equivalent of a single TV episode. Grant manages to fit a whole story into twenty-two pages and provide a satisfying emotional and visual experience. In a lot of ways, I think structuring for the single helps discipline his writing. Both this and Seven Soldiers are marvels, each issue complex and worthy of seemingly endless analysis.

The opening page has the great gag with Jimmy dressing as a woman, and all the previous setup is worth it for that. I like how Leo Quintum is the best dressed man in Metropolis, I too could not ignore the coolness of his Technicolor dream coat. Quitely stocks Jimmy’s apartment with all kinds of fun stuff, including an odd portrait of him dressed as a cyborg turtle. I’m sure there’s some story behind that, and Grant could probably tell it to you if you asked him.

Jimmy’s tour around the P.R.O.J.E.C.T labs has some fun stuff, but things don’t really get going until he falls into the pit of pink liquid. The scene with Clark running out of Perry’s office, turning into Superman as he goes, is fantastic. Grant and Quitely do a great job of selling the difference between the two of them, such that what was once an absurd narrative problem because one of the series’ greatest assets. It’s a lot of fun to watch Clark change into Superman when he finds out he’s needed.

It’s hard to watch Superman turn evil under the influence of the black kryptonite. As I’ve discussed earlier, Morrison’s Superman is an incarnation of absolute good, and it’s hard to watch him spiral down into evil. Superman struggles to deal with it, and in the process, raising the question of what they could do if Superman did turn evil. The last ditch option is to kill him, but first, we get Jimmy transforming into Doomsday.

Their fight is well executed, particularly the moment where dark Superman is crippled by his fear of death. Here, we see the feelings that regular Superman would never be able to show. He’s aware of his role as a symbol of what humanity can be, he can’t allow himself to succumb to this weakness. But, his opposite can, crying that he can’t die because he’s Superman. I particularly like the idea that Black K Superman becomes weaker the worse he acted. That implies that regular Superman because more powerful when he does good.

And, in the end, Jimmy uses Quintum’s resources to win over the heart of Lucy, impressing her with his tickets and a message on the moon. It’s a great finale, a really sweet moment for the issue’s hero. Quitely’s Lucy looks like she belongs to a different Quitely book, a bit more realist, but it still looks good and that final panel of her is great.

So, this wasn’t the most emotional or thematically dense issue, but it’s still a lot of fun. Now, I’m eager to check out the Clark Kent issue and see what happens to him and Luthor in prison.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Confusions of an Unmarried Couple

Confusions of an Unmarried Couple is a snappy indie film made by the Butler brothers, who split writing, directing, editing, cinematographing and starring duties between them. The film is structured around a lengthy conversation between Dan and Lisa, a couple that were engaged until he walked in on her with another woman. It’s full of crackling, funny dialogue and fairly insightful observations about people and relationships.

I’m sure the filmmakers have heard this from countless viewers, but the film fits in the same stylistic and thematic universe as early 90s indies like Richard Linklater’s work and, in particular, Kevin Smith. From Linklater we’ve got the dialogue based film, echoing something like Before Sunset. The Butlers clearly love the way people talk and take great pleasure in crafting literate, but profane banter for the two lead characters. In that respect, there’s a lot of Kevin Smith in here. He’s become the target of a lot of haters, and certainly his recent films have their flaws, but I still really like Clerks and love Chasing Amy. Confusions exists in the same universe as these films, and is perhaps even more professional looking and certainly better acted than Clerks.

The film centers almost exclusively on a real time conversation between Dan and Lisa, which is occasionally interrupted by talking head video of Dan and Lisa reflecting on the relationship. The talking head segments keep things from getting tedious, it’s not easy to keep an audience interested when your film has only one setting and two characters, but the fairly consistent hit ratio on jokes made it work. The film uses slightly stylized dialogue, the characters speaking the way we’d all want to speak, in witty, literate sentences, rather than the halting, um interrupted way that most of us actually speak. I like this kind of dialogue, it helps to keep things a bit lighter.

The film works best when it remains in an emotionally real universe, and allows the characters to go to a darker place. Dan vacillates between likeability and douchebaggery in a way that makes us understand why she could like him, but also sympathize when she rejects him. In the way that a lot of male filmmakers do, our point of view character is the male, we understand what he’s doing, but Lisa remains more enigmatic. She seems like an artsy person with larger concerns, why was she attracted to Dan in the first place? The film does a good job of showing how he can be charming at moments, and that the two of them can work well together. Because we’re coming in after the relationship is over, the two of them focus on the bad times, but there’s still that rapport and connection that draws them together.

Not to dwell on Smith, but the emotional arc of their relationship is reminiscent of Chasing Amy, with a less experienced male letting his insecurity destroy the relationship. It’s a relatable arc, and I think it works here by giving Dan a motivation for some of his hurtful moments. Not that Lisa is devoid of negative characteristics, there’s a balance in the relationship, but I feel like we’re given less access to her internal motivations, or perhaps they’re just less relatable to me. Either way, the characters work fairly well.

While I liked the dialogue, I had an issue with the way it was filmed. A lot of the scenes were shot in lengthy singles, with the camera panning from character to character as they spoke. The problem is, the characters would always pause as the camera panned, then start when it was on them. This made things feel a bit unnatural. It would have been better to keep the conversation flowing naturally and just catch up as they panned. There’s not that much to do with this film visually, but there are some interesting shots, the final scene is really well staged, definitely the visual highlight of the film.

In terms of acting, the film’s got its on and off moments. Naomi Johnson, who plays Lisa, is great in the talking head scenes, but not as believable in the real world scenes. Brett Butler as Dan is really funny, but not always believable on an emotional level.

But, ultimately, the film has enough to entertain. I love snappy banter, and this film provides that in spades. There’s a lot of really funny stuff here, and also a believable emotional story. That’s more than you’ll get out of virtually all Hollywood comedies. It’s a bit reductive to say, if you enjoy Kevin Smith movies, you’ll enjoy this, but really, that’s the best thing I can say. It’s that same style and the same satisfaction.

Substance Productions

Monday, June 11, 2007

John From Cincinnati: 'His Visit: Day One' (1x01)

After coming home from college, I subscribed to HBO. The primary reason for this was the need to see the last episode of The Sopranos as it aired, in a controlled environment. But, the channel has consistently produced the most challenging, exciting shows on TV, so I’m keeping the subscription even after the departure of its signature show, and that means I get the chance to check out their new shows, the most prominent of which is John From Cincinnati, a drama about three generations in a family of surfers and a mysterious visitor who intervenes in their lives.

Most reviews have focused on the show’s impenetrability, presenting it as a baffling, enigmatic narrative that’s hard to latch on to. Certainly there are odd pieces, but I think there’s a fairly standard hook for viewers. Like a lot of HBO shows, this is a family drama with a twist. The twist is a bit less obvious than a family that’s in the mob of a family that runs a funeral home, but it’s the same basic structure. The Yosts are a bit more abrasive than the Fishers, but we’ve got that same basic structure of a family divided that has to learn to live together.

But, the twist is unclear. John is a mysterious character, but I’ve got no problem with not understanding who or what he is just yet. There’s nothing wrong with mystery and I don’t think we need to find out soon. He is the catalyst that sets the series into motion and I’m sure his true nature will become apparent in time. For now, he provides a mix of humor and prophecy, implying that the show is part of some larger cosmic narrative. The supernatural events, Mitch’s levitation, the resurrected bird all portend something spiritual and important down the line.

In its odd events and supernatural periphery, the show resembles Carnivale, and I fear this show will follow that show’s journey to an early cancellation. I think people like supernatural stuff, but aren’t comfortable with real ambiguity. Look at the way people view Lost, constantly wanting answers, ignoring the fact that it’s the mystery that is most intriguing, the unknown, not any answers. Part of the reason for this is that any answer is arbitrary, the creation of writers who may or may not have even intended anything concrete at the beginning. David Milch might have just thought it was cool to have a guy levitating, so he threw it in there. As writers, the story tells itself, and in the best shows, the characters take on a life of their own and guide the narrative. Trying to artificially impose answers on mysteries can destroy what makes a show special.

But, the supernatural elements aren’t the core of this show. I like the way they’re placed into an otherwise very real environment. The show is primarily about the family’s struggle to reunite. I like Mitch and Bill, but many of the characters aren’t quite fully realized yet. It’s obviously early, but I don’t know that I’ll ever be able to feel for these characters in the way I do for the people on Buffy and Six Feet Under. Those characters were flawed, but they felt a bit more open than these do. It’s a very abrasive bunch, a colder attitude that on those shows.

But, it’ll take another episode to see how everything fits together. What does the hotel have to do with the Yosts? Is there some kind of larger supernatural plan, or is the show more just a series of personal issues? I really enjoyed the pilot, and I’ll definitely be back for a second episode. I think the show has just enough weird to make it more than a typical family drama, without going into overly quirkly territory. There’s a lot of potential here, but I really have no idea what the show will be like on a weekly basis. One thing I’m pretty sure of is that the show isn’t likely to be embraced by a wide audience. But, we shall see.

The Sopranos: 'Made in America' (6x21)

“Made in America” wasn’t exactly an epic conclusion, but, like a lot of series finales, it’s a perfect summation of the series’ message, and as such, we shouldn’t have expected anything else. It’s at times frustrating, but in the end, I was satisfied by the episode, particularly the haunting mix of safety and menace in the final moments. It wasn’t the best episode of the season, in fact, it was one of the weaker ones, but the series ended in a good place and I don’t feel like I need any more.

The central conceit of the series was the idea that Tony is just like you, a family man with a wife and kids living in suburbia, only he’s also in the mafia. An ordinary person plus something special is usually the best way to make a TV show work. You need that other element as a hook, to lend some life and death stakes to the drama, but at the same time, drifting too far into a different world strips the show of relatability. I find this show more true to my life than any other in TV history, it perfectly captures the world of suburban New York in the early twenty-first century, the rhythms of everyday life.

So, in this episode, we retreat from the epic sweep of the recent run of episodes back to a more subdued status quo that’s actually pretty nice for Tony. Looking at the series in light of this episode, it’s clear that the operatic violence of “The Blue Comet” was an anomaly, this kind of war isn’t standard for the mob today. Phil was one of the last remnants of a dying age, something he made explicit in his speech last episode. He is the one who instigates this war by refusing to compromise on the asbestos dumping, and he’s the one who instigates violence by attacking Tony’s crew.

Thematically, it makes sense for him to die because his worldview just isn’t viable anymore. Even his own crew recognizes that what they’re doing doesn’t make business sense, Tony was right in “Kaisha” when he tried to smooth things over with Phil. They have lost all the higher principles of “this thing of ours,” and are left with just another business. Phil endangers the lifestyles they’ve all created, turning them back into soldiers, but even then, Tony leaves the safehouse to check in on his family. Carmela wants to return to their house, not ready to live the fugitive lifestyle. It’s just a matter of removing the threat and getting back to normal.

I think one of the most important scenes of the series was Little Carmine’s speech in “Stage 5,” in which he talked about how he backed off being boss when his wife told him she didn’t want to be the richest widow in Jersey. With so many characters dying over something as trivial as an asbestos dumping, the absurd incongruity of what they’re doing falls into place. The organization has no meaning beyond money, so they’re not really dying for anything. Phil is so frustrated at his prison stay because he gave us twenty years of his life for something he believed in and when he got out, he found out that no one believed in it anymore. What they’re doing is just like any job, would you put your life at risk for a promotion? Here, Carmine seems eager to stay out of the fray, he knows that one wrong word could lead to his death, so he just stays in the back and hopes that things will work themselves out. He has more important things that this war.

Tracking back a little, the episode opens with a lot of foreboding, heavy music on the soundtrack, snow swirling around and Paulie and Tony drive out to meet with Agent Harris. Most people talk about Melfi as the viewers’ stand in, but over the course of the series, and in this episode in particular, Agent Harris serves the same role, infatuated with Tony and secretly helping despite knowing that he’s a bad man. I read one review of the finale that said Harris was in a relationship with a Brooklyn cop, and that brought a lot of things together. The whole arc makes a lot more sense if that woman is the one Phil set up to be beaten and raped, and Harris is now using Tony to get revenge for his girlfriend. I’m not sure where in the series we saw she was a Brooklyn cop, but it works for me, and is a nice counterpoint to Melfi’s rape storyline. There, we saw her refuse to go outside the law to get what was quite justifiable justice. However, the actual law officers feel free to use the mob when it’s to their advantage.

Even without that connection, the arc works. Harris gets vicarious thrills from being in Tony’s world, and after spending so much time observing him, he pays Tony back for the intelligence about the Arabs. On a thematic level, the arc is indicative of the declining power of the mafia. They aren’t a real threat to national security, they’ve been replaced by something much larger. So, the government doesn’t have a big problem working with Tony to help stop the chaos.

From the time the series began, the world has gone through a lot of changes. 9/11 caused a seismic shift in the country’s political landscape, and few shows have engaged with post 9/11 life in the way that this season did. The mob isn’t as much of a threat anymore, and, as a quintessentially American entity, they’ve gained the tacit acceptance of the government. Last episode, Harris told Tony how the mob protected the Brooklyn Navy Yard during World War II. Now, Tony is serving the same role, they’re a part of the defense strategy, and are tolerated for that reason.

I would argue that the episode’s central theme is engagement with the American dream, and this is contained most notably in the resolution of AJ’s arc. At Bobby’s funeral, AJ talks about the fact that people still come to America with hope, in search of a better life, but, according to him, you can’t find it here anymore. Disillusioned by his experience with how the other half lives, he has stopped believing in the myth of America and is obsessed with the hypocrisies of the war in Iraq and the way that the American people just go about like sheep when so much is wrong with the world. He says it’s ridiculous to talk about the Oscars when people are dying in Iraq, ignoring the fact that you need some lies to live with the world. Part of coping with problems is just accepting that there’s going to be some bad stuff in the world we can’t deal with, and just letting it go.

AJ felt an inability to change anything in the world, and that’s what drove him to his suicide attempt. However, his growing relationship with Rhiannon, who he would love to love, helps set him on the right path. The car explosion helps jar him out of his funk and make him realize that he does want to live. Ultimately, what happens to him is that he learns to accept the lie again. He seeks to enlist in the army as a way to make a difference in the world, if he did that, then he could feel good about his place in the world. However, soon enough, he doesn’t even need that, moving away from his moment of pain, he buys back fully into the lie. AJ gets a BMW, that has good gas mileage, and takes an entry level job with Carmine because he doesn’t need to change the world anymore, just helping himself is enough.

I think it’s notable that AJ takes over for Christopher as Carmine’s partner. Tony has replaced one surrogate son with the other, ironically the thing he viewed as a distraction for Christopher becomes a salvation for AJ. Christopher does linger in the episode, with the cat, who incarnates all the people they’ve killed over the years. They’re still there, and even after Paulie drowns the cat, he returns. The conscience doesn’t clean that easy. But, it’s possible to live with the guilt, it’s there, but not actively bothering the characters.

I know people are going to talk about all the loose ends left open by the episode, but I think everything was resolved to a satisfactory level, as much as is possible without being contrived. Very few lives reach a real end point, things just go on, you could do a Six Feet Under style hop through time, but other than that, there’s really no ending you can give a TV show other than we’ve reached a momentary stasis point and things will go in the future. In that respect, this reminds me of the end of Buffy, some characters die, others go on to do new stuff, it’s not an ending so much as a stopping point.

To that end, almost all the long running characters get a nice farewell. We see Janice becoming her mother, something that’s made literal in the great scene where Junior calls Janice Livia and her daughter, Janice. Janice already resents Bobby’s children and will likely be so overprotective of her own daughter that Nica will rebel in the same way that Janice did as a child.

Junior is left in a haze, remembering only vaguely the days when he and Johnny Boy were part of “this thing of ours.” The final scene with Tony is the closest you’ll get to a glimpse of Tony’s future, he could one day end up a prisoner of the federal government, out of his mind, staring at some birds on a windowsill. It’s tough to see a character we’ve known for so long, who was once so fierce and lively turned into a vegetable, but that’s what the passage of time does.

The reason TV is such a powerful storytelling medium is that we have watched these people get older in a natural way. Movies usually feel constructed, a story designed to make a specific point, whereas great TV shows are more like just dropping into a world and checking in with the characters every year to see what they’re up to. While the delays between seasons were frustrating, they allowed the cast to age and grow in unexpected ways. If the show had ended in 2005, there’s no way we would have gotten the great stuff with AJ that we did this year. This show is a testament to what TV can do, and while it’s not my favorite show of all time, I think it is the best made.

Paulie ends pretty much where he began, sitting outside Satriale’s, looking back on some old times and getting ready to move to the future. The final scene with him and Tony is great, they’re the last two members of the old guard, the only ones with memories of Sil and Ralphie and Pussy. Tony’s generation is dying off, replaced by the Jasons and the random members of the crew. The faces change, but things are still basically the same.

Meadow, like her brother, buys into the lies necessary to believe in their family’s version of the American dream. One of the notable things about both kids is the way that they’ve each just accepted what their father does without any questioning or real moral trouble. AJ couldn’t stand the violence in Iraq, but never questioned the fact that everything he has comes from violence. Breaking down that lie would destroy his entire world and that’s why both he and Meadow ultimately choose to embrace their existence rather than run from it. While Tony succeeded in keeping them both out of the “Family” proper, they’re both involved in peripheral ways. AJ is working with Carmine, and if he was to have a club, he would certainly be involved with some of the criminal element.

Meadow’s arc is somewhat implicit. Over the course of the show we see her interrogate her father about his work, in the legendary “College,” move away from the family while dating Noah, then move back towards them when she was with Jackie Jr. At the end of season three, she has an outburst and disrupts the family order, and over the next couple of seasons, moves gradually away from her family. However, starting with last season, she and Finn become divided over her family’s criminal involvement, and ultimately she sides with her family rather than Finn. She could have stayed in California, but instead she moves back to Jersey.

Now, Meadow is a smart girl, she went to Columbia, she knows what her father does, but still, she expresses outrage at the way her father is treated by the government. She has bought into the myth, that they’re being persecuted because they’re Italian Americans, not because they’re criminals. This is absurd, but when you listen to her at the sushi restaurant, she fully believes it, and when Patrick is talking about his case, he says he’s defending a judge involved in some kind of corruption scandal, which Tony seems to be a part of.

By the time we reach the end of the episode, all the chaos of the past few episodes has essentially resolved itself and we’re back to as close to normal as we can get. I think one of the key things to understanding Chase’s work in the later seasons of the series, 6A in particular, is that he works based on the rules of real life, not of TV. So, exciting stuff isn’t always going to be happening to the characters, he’s not going to invent a lot of artificial drama that can resolve itself in a single hour, or give characters simple, easy to resolve arcs. Instead, in the style of real life, people will slip into patterns of trouble that repeat, most notably AJ and Christopher across the course of this two part season.

Christopher’s constant relapses and recoveries from addiction make no sense from a dramatic point of view, shouldn’t his arc lead him somewhere? It does, but in a less obvious way. All that slipping and reversals are critical to bringing him to the place he is in “Walk Like a Man,” where he nearly turns on Tony and the crew. Similarly, AJ’s depression works so well because we saw the seeds of it in 6A then it got fully paid off in 6B. Most TV characters don’t really grow, but face a constantly rotating set of problems. The characters on The Sopranos change, but always have the same core issues, and I think that’s true of real people. I can’t relate to constantly being caught up in love triangles, but I can relate to AJ’s issues with the world or Christopher’s troubles with Tony. The beauty of the show is that the characters aren’t likable in traditional ways, but are always completely relatable.

Anyway, what I’m getting at is that the last few episodes were something of an anomaly. Everybody’s life got thrown into chaos, as it appropriate at the climax of the story, but Chase chose to include this episode to show that this isn’t the status quo. Our lives don’t build to a big ending then stop, big stuff happens and people go on. Bobby dies, Janice moves on. The events echo, but they will gradually fade, and by the end of the episode, everything seems to be back to normal.

This brings us to the simultaneously brilliant and frustrating final scene. When the episode stopped, I, like many viewers, thought the cable had gone out and was incredibly frustrated. But, I realized it was past 10, so we had probably reached the end of things. It was tough to take in that moment, but I think the jarring nature of the cut out was a great choice, and a really bold one.

The scene directly follows Tony leaving Satriale’s, where he always gathered with the mob family. It used to be a bustling place, now it’s just Paulie left. Tony has lost a lot of friends, but ultimately, he never cared about the mob family as much as he did about his real family. He always claimed that everything he did, he did for them, and sitting there at the table, everything seems to have worked out pretty well for him.

There’s a number of critical things to look at in this scene. Let me start with the setting. This is a restaurant that’s not the cutting edge, sleek place where Tony and Meadow ate sushi, it’s an old style, classic family restaurant. Looking around him, we see a boy scout troop, a couple of teenagers and a guy with a USA hat on. These are ordinary people who seem more Midwest than Jersey, all American people, out enjoying a meal with their families. Putting the Sopranos in this setting reinforces what I’d argue is the central point of the episode, that they are just one more piece of the lie that is America. As AJ makes clear, there’s all this awful stuff happening in the world, and even right next door, but does it matter?

That’s where the music comes in. Again, Chase doesn’t go for what’s cool, instead it’s a track that just says guy sitting in a pickup truck with a mullet, Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin.’” Music is always carefully chosen on the show and this track sums up the core theme of the episode. America is a dream we all have, it’s built on blood and hate, but if we’re happy, does that matter? In this moment, Tony watches his family come together, AJ’s happy, Carmela is happy, things are good.

But, simmering under the surface are a myriad of threats. He may be indicted for the gun charge, Carlo has flipped and there could still be gunmen out there. He’ll never be completely safe, but they can’t dwell on that. What AJ’s arc is telling us is that it’s not possible to fully engage with our world, there’s too much awful stuff. We just have to accept the lie, and we can’t stop believing in it. I absolutely love the way that song works in the scene, the cheesy, but great build as Carmela sits down. This is the kind of song she’d love, the kind of song they’d have played when they were younger together. They have a dream that they can hold on as long as they believe in it.

Watching the scene, I realized that Tony was going to get a happy ending, everything he really cares about is still there and he’s gotten pretty much everything he wants. Yet, hanging over all this was an inescapable sense of menace. A mysterious guy hovers at the bar, and Meadow struggles to parallel park. Tension is building under the serenity, a device that lets us understand how Tony views the world. Particularly after the hits on Bobby and Sil, everything around him is a potential threat. This is how he’ll always live, trying to believe in the lie, but fearing what’s around him.

The final moment of the show is extremely jarring, and I think that’s the point. Most of the seasons end with some kind of family tableau, and we seemed to be building to that, but just as Meadow is walking in, we cut in what’s probably the most jarring end of a series since the final moment of Twin Peaks. I read this ending as basically saying life goes on. The real world has no fade outs and music over the credits, things just happen and eventually we die. The show died in that moment, but the world carries on.

Will Meadow get to the table? Was the guy in the bathroom a killer? Will Tony be arrested? I think the answer is yes only to one of these questions. People are already talking about the way that Chase screwed them on the ending, but seriously, what do we need to know? Tony might be killed or might be arrested at any moment in the show, we don’t any sort of definitive closure at the ending. It would have been easier to end on Meadow sitting at the table, but he wanted to go out on a moment of tension, and that’s what we got, in a spectacular fashion. The lack of music over the credits was particularly jarring, just silence, no more from these characters. I don’t think we’ll ever see a movie, and I don’t think we need one, I am fully satisfied with how all the characters’ stories were resolved.

The series has always been about lies, the ones Tony tells himself to justify his actions, and the ones Carmela tells herself to justify her marriage. The characters who couldn’t accept the lie anymore, like Christopher, all ended up dead. You can’t challenge the world and you can’t leave the world. Instead, you simply need to believe in the myth that what they’re doing is meaningful and worthwhile, that it’s more than simple extortion and violence.

What this episode brings home is the way that Tony Soprano is no different than you or I. We all buy into this myth of America, the shared past and the uncertain future. We all think that the new generation’s going downhill, but really, things just go on. The generations cycle and people change, that is life in America. Tony has been a success because he’s found his place and he hasn’t challenged the status quo. He may be living in denial about all the bad things he’d one, but it doesn’t matter because all of us are. Sitting in that diner, he’s no different from you or I. We’re all a product of a culture that pushes the bad things below the surface so we can live in the dream. Watching his kids grow and surpass him, he’s living the American dream, going from criminal to lawyer in one generation. And, if you believe this series, there’s no real difference, it’s all a part of this one huge mosaic of lies and dreams that is America.

Sunday, June 10, 2007

All Star Superman #3: 'Sweet Dreams, Superwoman'

“Sweet Dreams, Superwoman” is another really fun issue that manages to seamlessly mix over the top Silver Age craziness with real, emotional impact. That’s the series’ greatest strength, and it comes out of Morrison’s love for the material. He truly believes in what this version of Superman stands for, and is able to extrapolate from his existence what the universe would be like. If Superman is a regular presence in your world, the appearance of an evolved lizard from the Earth’s core would just be a minor inconvenience, and that’s an exciting world to live in.

The first page of the issue is incredible, Morrison sums up the issue’s premise quickly so we can get right to the action, and does so it in a way that lets Quitely do some phenomenal work. I like that Superman color coordinates the box with his costume, in the previous issue, we saw a more domestic Superman, and this kind of design work fits with his interests. I love the way Quitely draws Lois, particularly the bottom panel, which is just dripping with sex. Is there any significance to that? I’m not sure, but it works well, she is clearly excited by the idea of being like Superman and that final panel shows her taking control of things.

My one major problem with this issue is that Lois gets powers, but doesn’t really get to do anything. She flies around at first, but then spends most of the issue standing around while Superman, Samson and Hercules fight over her. I think you could do something interesting where Superman transfers his powers to her, so that he is forced to be human and let her do the heroics. Alternatively, you could just have the two of them going around together and helping people, but I guess it was not to be.

But, I think Morrison’s primary interest in the issue isn’t showing what Lois would do with superpowers, it’s more about showing why Superman is different than other heroes. It’s interesting that he chose two figures out of older cultural mythology. Morrison has always equated Superman with the Greek gods, referring to the JLA as the pantheon when he was writing that book. In the same way that the Greek gods served as a model to aspire to for people at the time, Morrison wants Superman to be a model for humanity. I think that’s a major reason he takes issue with Moore’s deconstructionist superhero writing, to Morrison, superheroes aren’t juvenile power fantasies, they are models for humanity to aspire to. A work like Miracleman shows what an ordinary person would do when presented with huge power, the ways that it would corrupt him and lead to an almost Aryan society. This work is more about showing what the ultimate hero is, and how humanity struggles to live up to his example.

Anyway, it’s notable that Superman is presented as the only mythological character who’s actually more than human. The others are petty and jealous, hoping to impress Lois with absurd feats of strength. Superman is so confident in himself that he doesn’t need to engage in their juvenile antics, he just chills for a while, then ultimately wins using his mind. Morrison presents an evolution of mythological figures, we don’t need the violence and pettiness of our old models, Superman is above that. In addition to commenting on mythology in general, it also fits as a meta commentary on superhero comics themselves. Superman doesn’t need to lower himself to the pointless violence of other characters, he is beyond that, something that most writers of the character don’t get.

On the page where they first meet, I love how Quitely has the subtle background action of Superman retrieving Krull from space. That’s one of the best things about Quitely’s art, and the way Morrison writes for him. It’s not just an illustrated story, you have the “read” the images to understand the story and there’s a ton of details in each issue to catch on repeat reads.

I like how Lois is so confident in Superman, she goes along with the feats. For her, it’s fun to watch these other guys put so much effort in, knowing that they’ll get shown up soon. They can talk about having drinks at the crucifixion or riding a chariot drawn by gods, that can’t compare to hanging out with Superman. The funniest thing here is when Lois says she’s trying to teach him a lesson “after the creepy and ridiculous impersonation of Clark Kent that started all this.” He just can’t convince her that he can the bumbling journalist as well as the Superman.

Superman ultimately shows up Samson and Herclues through his intelligence, not his strength, answering the riddle of the Sphinx. It’s notable that his answer is to surrender, a non-violent approach. We all just accept that superhero comics have to have violence and fights to be sustainable. That’s what a hero does, someone who literally fights for what’s right. But, this book presents a different approach, and it’s exciting to see it in action. This is a whole new paradigm for the sort of stories that can be told with the character, and superheroes in general.

Superman goes out to a beach to finally shut up Samson and Hercules and does so in a spectacular arm wrestling competition. My favorite part here is Lois’s total relaxation as she sits and watches, as well as Superman’s whistle as he defeats them. Visually, it’s pretty fantastic too, emerging into the gorgeous blue sky and ocean after our time in the cave.

From there, Superman and Lois head up to the moon to do something he’s wanted to do since the very first day they met. What exactly is that? Clearly they have sex, but wouldn’t they have done that before? Perhaps it’s sex with the superpowers, they do look pretty spectacular on the full page splash up on the moon, another amazing Quitely image. That moment, and the closing scene makes us understand what it’s like to have a relationship that’s so far beyond what humans can have. Superman feels everything more, so much so that Lois is exhausted by her day and drifts off to sleep.

The final page is very sweet. Quitely has an unmatched ability for framing a panel. The top panel on the final page shows us exactly what we need to know, but in a more dynamic way than a full body shot of Superman carrying Lois would. Here, we have the strength of his arms, the iconic symbol, juxtaposed against the quiet sleep of a now human woman. That’s what the series is all about the blend of super and man, over the top craziness and relatable emotion.

This is another great issue, again proving that Morrison has the definitive take on the character. I feel like with every book he writes does everything the characters need to do. We don’t need any more X-Men after the end of his run, no more Doom Patrol, no more Animal Man. He takes the concepts to their logical ends, incorporating everything important from the mythos and condenses it into one great run. That’s certainly what he’s doing here.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer: 'The Long Way Home: Part IV' (8x04)

This issue brings the initial arc to a close in a less than spectacular fashion. At this point, the novelty of having new Buffy in comics form has worn off a bit, so the problems with the storytelling are more apparent. It’s not bad, it’s just that this doesn’t feel like the show I loved. Admittedly, most of the problems are holdovers from season seven, magnified by the limited space that monthly comics allow for storytelling.

My major issue with this issue, and the series in general, is the premise, Buffy as leader of a gang of slayers. For me, the interesting part of the show was rarely the vampire slaying, or Buffy’s issues with her role as slayer, that was all just a hook to get people interested in the characters. The reason I love season six more than any other is that it strips back the action trappings and lets us focus exclusively on the characters and their issues. Season seven, and this comic, go in the exact opposite direction looking at Buffy only as a slayer, not as a person.

What this issue does is basically retread the exact thematic points we already saw in season four and seven, with the initiative and Caleb arcs. I never liked the initiative because it just didn’t fit into the world the show had created. I like the more street level slaying, what happens to the characters in seasons five and six is relatable, Buffy’s involvement with the initiative in season four, not so much. The show could do fantastical things and still be emotionally real, but the initiative stuff just didn’t make me feel anything. And, this arc hits the exact same points, Buffy vs. entrenched patriarchal military industrial complex.

The series’ hook was a girl who had a lot of power, but really wanted to live a normal teenage life. As she grew up, that remained the central conflict, could Buffy be a slayer and still live a normal life? The end of the show seems to resolve the conflict by making her no longer the chosen one, instead she’s just one of many chosen. That’s why the setup of this comic bothers me, Buffy isn’t particularly interesting when she is in control of her life. It’s when things are spinning away from her that the character was best, here she’s got so much power, such a large operation, there’s no real tension.

The most grating moment in the issue is when Buffy goes on a rant about how the military guy doesn’t want women and power in the same sentence. It doesn’t work for the same reason that the Caleb arc in season seven fails, you never want to make what was thematically implicit explicit in such an obvious manner. We know that Buffy is powerful, we know that people are out to get her, you don’t need to go into such obvious speechifying mode. It’s the equivalent of having someone come out and call Tony Soprano a bad man, we know that already, we don’t need to be told. We know that the military is out to keep women down, we don’t need Buffy to say it. It just took me out of the moment of the story.

The series ends by setting up an X-Men style war between slayers and normal humans. This is an interesting route to go in theory, but I don’t think it works with what Buffy was doing during the series. For me, Buffy isn’t particularly interesting as a leader of troops, that’s why season seven fails on a lot of levels, we lose the sense of her as a person. Now, she’s an icon, not an individual and we either have to see behind her fa├žade or not put her in this position. I feel like we really need Spike here, to keep her in touch with her dark side. Now, she’s got no one to play off of and it’s only through the interior monologues that we get any sense of the conflict she feels. But, let’s show, not tell on that.

Ultimately, I think the reason I have issues with the book is that Buffy was one of the least interesting characters on the show. I love her during season two, five and six, when she’s got all kinds of troubles facing her, but during the comparatively stable years, she wasn’t particularly interesting. Willow, Anya, Tara, Xander and Spike were all much more interesting than her, and I’d rather spend more time with them than with Buffy. That’s where the problem with comics come in. On the show, there was time to give the other characters their own meaningful subplots, here they just do a couple of pages supporting Buffy. Perhaps that will change in future arcs, we’ll see.

Looking ahead, I’m curious how this storyline will play into the Faith storyline. Will it really be six months before we return to these characters, or will Faith eventually meet up with them? I have to say, I’ll be happy to leave Buffy for a while to focus on someone else. The setup she’s got now, she’s just not that interesting. There were some more interesting, human moments in the last couple of issues, but not here. I’m sticking with the comic, it’s still cool to see the gang back together, but I think the premise they’ve chosen was really misguided. Hopefully things will right themselves on future storylines.